23

In a movie that I watched recently, I heard-

  • for aught I know,
  • for aught I care.

I work with a lot of native speakers, and they all told me it's not in formal or informal usage anymore.

What's the ground reality?

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    All gone. Trust what native speakers tell you. I would only ever use it in the old-fashioned name "noughts and crosses" for tic-tac-toe (if that counts). – Greg Lee Jan 30 '15 at 17:23
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    Are you sure what you heard in the movie wasn’t the very common expression for all I know/care? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 30 '15 at 18:26
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    I, for one, would like to know the movie this quote is taken from. You ought to tell us what it is cough. – Digital Chris Jan 30 '15 at 18:28
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    @Greg Lee: I think that depends on which population of native speakers you're asking. Urban, especially inner-city, almost certainly not. Rural areas, or educated speakers, it's still used/understood. (And ought/aught, as in the 30.06 rifle cartridge, is a different word.) – jamesqf Jan 30 '15 at 18:55
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    "Nought" is still very common in British English (or at least in the south, where I'm from.) I'm not sure I've ever seen it spelled "naught" though. And I've never heard "aught". – GMA Jan 30 '15 at 20:02

10 Answers 10

17

Yes, it survived, but it is commonly spelled owt.

The original spelling of aught, meaning anything, as used in the OP's question, is archaic, (Dictionaries: Oxford, Chambers).

An alternative meaning is "zero" (derived from nought.) This meaning is used when naming rifle cartridge sizes, and in Norfolk. citation needed, and see @WS2 's answer.

Both meanings under discussion (anything and zero) are alternatively spelled ought. (Oxford dictionary: ought-3 aught-2. Not in Chambers)

It remains current in Northern English with the newer, apparently 19th century, spelling of owt (Again in Oxford but not Chambers.) There it retains the meaning of "anything", opposite of nowt ("nothing".) As you can imagine, the pronunciation is slightly different.

For example, you'll find it in the so-called Yorkshire motto:

"‘Ear all, see all, say nowt. Eat all, sup all, pay nowt.
And if ever thou does owt fer nowt – allus do it fer thissen"
BBC America

You can hear it used regularly on British drama series such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale, and the long-running sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (thanks @Pharap ) though I'll leave it to others to source quotations for you, but you can infer that it is understood by their audiences of millions of native speakers.

Here, Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan uses owt in a 2014 article in a regional newspaper. You can see by the way he uses it that Northern dialect is more often spoken and informal. ''Grappling to get to grips with an alien language'' by Ian McMillan

Update: According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL), there are also current Scots, Scottish English and Orcadian versions of aught (anything): ocht, ochts, oucht, owt, och. DSL has several quotations from the 20th century and earlier. Surprisingly to me, it lists four further meanings listed: a somebody, either, any, somewhat.

Second update Chambers and Oxford dictionaries trace the "anything" meaning of aught / owt to Old English awiht meaning "any person." (Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary entry)

I have added above that the alternative spelling of ought means both "zero" and "anything".

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    +1 There's nowt like a good brew, lad. You may also want to mention Last Of The Summer Wine, considering its probably the longest running sitcom to be set in Yorkshire. – Pharap Jan 31 '15 at 19:11
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    Excellent answer +1 But though this may well be the position north of a line drawn from the Severn to the Wash, as I explain in my answer concerning Norfolk, the position is quite different in the south of England. – WS2 Jan 31 '15 at 21:41
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    @Qsigma No, I don't think there is. At least I can't think of one. – WS2 Feb 1 '15 at 17:01
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    Out of all the spellings you provide, no mention of "ought"? That's the only one I've seen, other than "aught". That said, I'm from Australia. "Owt" looks so weird. – AlbeyAmakiir Feb 1 '15 at 22:41
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    I live in Maine, and we do occasionally use aught else to mean nothing else: "He was standing in the driveway, shoveling snow in his socks and aught else. He had aught else to say in his own defense." I don't think I've seen it written thus, but it's part of our local dialect. – Kit Z. Fox Feb 3 '15 at 0:33
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The ground reality is that a few well educated speakers will understand what this word means, most native speakers will be able to correctly guess the word's meaning from context, but very few people will ever actually use it in formal or informal speech.

However, "for naught" appears in the idiom: "It was all for naught", which is more commonly used.

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    "Nought" is still used in British English, it's more or less interchangeable with "zero". I'm not sure I've ever seen it spelled as "naught" though. – GMA Jan 30 '15 at 20:03
  • If you google the letter epsilon the suggested phrases include 'naught', which is referring to the vacuum permittivity constant. – Faraz Masroor Jan 30 '15 at 22:29
  • You got it right, Mark, for AmE. The exceptions others cited are all in BrE dialects. +1 – Brian Hitchcock Jan 31 '15 at 11:34
  • Both well-educated and ill-educated people in the US do still occasionally use the word aught. They do not use it in the sense found in the OP's quotes, however, as far as I know. I encounter it only as a synonym for zero. – David K Feb 1 '15 at 14:06
  • I think the "ground reality" in places like Wigan, Leigh, and other northern towns would disagree with your answer... – HorusKol Feb 2 '15 at 0:04
6

It's one of those words that has fallen out of people's active vocabulary, but still remains in the passive vocabulary. In other words, you will not hear someone use "aught" in that sense, unless they are deliberately trying to sound old-fashioned for a dramatic or poetic effect. However, if someone did choose to use the word (again, most likely for dramatic or poetic effect), most people would understand what was meant. There are plenty of other archaic words like this, such as "betwixt" or "erelong," that people don't actually use in everyday speech but recognize nonetheless because they've seen them in movies, literature, etc.

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6

The word "aught", it appears now survives mainly in the fixed expressions:

-for aught I know, for aught I care.

The presence of the modal verb -ought-may have been a factor to put aught into restricted use.

This blog from vocabulary.com- Your Head Will Spin: "Naught," "Aught," and "Ought", may provide further insights.

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5

The Yorshire use of owt and nowt for aught and naught, to which other responders have referred, is interesting.

The position in Norfolk is quite different. We retain nought, to mean nothing or zero, but we drop the 'n', so it is pronounced ought or orte. It sounds like aught but in fact it is the opposite.

In Norfolk they talk about the game of oughts and crosses.

It would appear that Norfolk has, like Received English, lost the use of aught for anything.

It seems to me to emphasise that the great linguistic divide in England runs in virtually a straight line from the Severn estuary to the Wash. Norfolk (which paradoxically is north of the Midlands) bears more in common with Hampshire, both linguistically and culturally, than it does with Lincolnshire - a county of the North.

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  • I have also heard "ought" meaning "zero" in Ireland. – Qsigma Feb 1 '15 at 15:16
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    @Qsigma Yes, owt and nowt are particular to the north of England. I'm not sure how far their writ runs, but Yorkshire and Lancashire (whose dialects are in many ways similar) are two counties where you will definitely hear them. There's nowt so queer as folk, as they say. I am wondering if Geordies use owt and nowt. Can anyone help? – WS2 Feb 1 '15 at 16:54
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Use of 'aught' to mean 'anything' is officially archaic according to Oxford Dictionaries.

aught. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 30 January 2015.

(As a variant spelling of 'ought' from 'nought', meaning the digit '0', it's still alive in American English).

But: see Qsigma's answer about 'owt', they're totally right.

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    "Officially Archaic". Wow! I want a sweatshirt. – John Lawler Jan 30 '15 at 17:42
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    @JohnLawler Is that one with the words 'Officially Archaic' written on it? My children clearly don't know they exist, or I would have found one in my Christmas stocking! – WS2 Feb 1 '15 at 20:19
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First time posting, but I wanted to point out the usage of the similar word owt (same meaning, different spelling/pronunciation) is common use in colloquial terms in Yorkshire, Northern England.

Pronoun - owt (Northern England) aught, anything

Noun owt (uncountable) (Northern England) anything

Adverb owt (not comparable) (Northern England) anything

-Wiktionary

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  • If Sheffield United win 2-0, that is two-owt, isn't it? So owt in this case is a noun, but it means 'nothing'. But if I ask 'Did the postman leave owt?', that means 'anything', doesn't it. I'm a Norfolk bloke, and we don't say 'owt'. But if Norwich are winning 2-0, that is 'two-orte'. We also talk about 'ortes and crosses'. But the other Yorksire uses of 'owt' do not apply to the Norfolk 'orte'. – WS2 Jan 30 '15 at 23:19
  • No, the Sheffield United score would by two-nowt, i.e. two-naught in Yorkshire parlence. Interesting how language varies by county though. – user108066 Jan 31 '15 at 12:36
  • That is interesting. At Carrow Road it would be two-ought. But I see what has happened here. Norfolk has dropped the 'n' from nought' to get 'ought'. And we don't use 'ought' to mean 'anything', because it actually means 'nothing'. But then the great divide in English is a line drawn from the Severn estuary to the Wash. Norfolk, both linguistically and culturally, has more in common with Hampshire than it does with Lincolnshire - which is a county of the North. – WS2 Jan 31 '15 at 21:03
  • Welcome to ELU! Only a few minutes before you, I posted a similar answer. But Wiktionary adds interesting info that I didn't know. english.stackexchange.com/a/224711/36727 – Qsigma Feb 1 '15 at 17:09
2

In Canadian usage "aught" had no meaning of "all" or "any" but rather "little," "an insignificant quantity" or a zero synonym, particularly in the first nine years of a century.

For example, my fathers generation would refer to "aught 9" or even "nineteen aught nine."

In Canada, "for aught I care" would not mean "for all I care," but "for so little I care." A small difference but a real one.

"Aught" is also subtly different from "naught" which continues in use, albeit uncommonly, to mean actually nothing. Not a small amount, but no amount at all.

Perhaps the contrast can best be seen in the "care" example.

"For aught I care..." versus "I care naught."

The first means I care very little. The second means I care not at all.

I have heard, recently, a television news reporter characterizing the efforts of a politician as being "all for naught." His meaning was not "all for very little," nor as a substitute for a numeric zero. Rather he meant that the efforts were "all for nothing."

I've also heard it in "there's naught to be done for him."

I am confident that the vast majority of Canadian English speakers would immediately recognize the usage and meaning of "naught" without finding the transaction discomforting. "Aught," if understood at all, by context or education, would be awkward, uncomfortable for the ear.

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  • I think that your grandfather in saying 1909, was actually using ought rather than aught. Ignoring what others have said about the north of England, which has quite different linguistic traditions to the south, the southern ought is almost certainly a nought with the n dropped off. It is the opposite of aught which seems lost from south of England dialects, as well as from Received English. My sense is that your grandfather is following a south of England tradition in his nineteen ought nine. (You may also be interested in my reply, concerning Norfolk ) – WS2 Jan 31 '15 at 21:31
  • @WS2: In American English (and possibly, also Canadian), those words are spelled "naught" and "aught" and certainly never as "nought" (which doesn't exist) or "ought" (which is a verb similar to "should".) – Nick Matteo Feb 1 '15 at 4:50
  • @Kundor I think everyone who speaks English in the world is aware of the verb ought and that it has nothing to do with 'ought or 'aught. But what seems clear, and it had never occurred to me before this OP posted, is that the word 'ought or 'aught as it is used in the south of England, and it would appear in North America, to mean zero is the very opposite of the Early-Modern English form of aught meaning approximately anything. So I would suggest that our oughts and aughts should be spelled with a leading apostrophe, for omission of the n. – WS2 Feb 1 '15 at 8:58
2

Did a Google Ngram, with for me a surprising result.

It would imply that "aught" is dying, but not quite dead yet. Nevertheless, much commoner than "owt" in the corpus used.

I'd note that the change in status of regional dialects in recent years might mean that results in 2015 are substantially changed from the Ngram end date of 2000.

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2

Beware the two polar opposite meanings of aught:

1. Originally, aught was 'a concise and poetic near-synonym for "anything" that has for centuries well served writers, including Shakespeare'

2. However, a more recent meaning of aught is: "nothing," "zero," or "cipher". [This] 'is a nineteenth-century corruption of the word "naught," which actually does mean nothing.'

The following is the source of the quotes above, and explains the semantic drift behind 2: how aught evolved to mean naught. For readability, I edit slightly and don't use blockquotes >:


Source: Aught and naught, anything and nothing,
by Stanford University Associate Professor of Linguistics Christopher Potts.

In the current (Jan 4, 2010) issue of The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead has a comment that is partly about what to call the previous decade:

Arguably, a grudging agreement has been reached on calling the decade "the aughts," but that unfortunate term is rooted in a linguistic error. The use of "aught" to mean "nothing," "zero," or "cipher" is a nineteenth-century corruption of the word "naught," which actually does mean nothing, and which, as in the phrase "all for naught," is still in current usage. Meanwhile, the adoption of "the aughts" as the decade’s name only accelerates the almost complete obsolescence of the actual English word "aught," a concise and poetic near-synonym for "anything" that has for centuries well served writers,

including Shakespeare (6. "I never gave you aught," Hamlet says to Ophelia, in an especially ungenerous moment, before she goes off and drowns)

and Milton (7. "To do aught good never will be our task / But ever to do ill our sole delight," Satan declares near the beginning of "Paradise Lost," before slinking up to tempt Eve).

I don't know whether Mead is right that we've settled on the aughts, and I won't comment directly on whether anyone has committed any errors. Instead, I'll try to explicate why a word like aught might take on senses close to that of nothing.

Let's start with some clear cases from today's Standard English:

1a. Sam didn't eat anything at the party last night.
1b. Sam ate nothing at the party last night.

1b probably sounds more direct or charged than 1a, but the two make the same claim about the world. They differ only in where the negation is expressed: on the auxiliary in (1a) and on the direct object in (1b). Moreover, there is a sense in which the any-form in (1a) (ie: ANYthing) is dependent upon the negation; 1a is highly marked. (In thinking about the negation-free cases, take care not to sneak in a modal like would. This changes things; see (4) below.)

In Mead's Hamlet example, aught seems to be an any-type form. Hamlet said [in 6 above]
I never gave you aught.
If he cared only about truth conditions, he might have been just as happy with
I gave you naught.

Milton's example has a contrastive structure that is ruined by paraphrase, but we can compare
7. To do aught good never will be our task
with
To do naught good (always/ever) will be our task.

One might go so far as to say that naught incorporates a negation that comes unglued in aught structures. This isn't transparent for anything and nothing, but it's clear for ever and never (neg-ever?)

2a. Sam never left his room.
2b. Sam didn't ever leave his room.

Thus, Standard English any forms seem not to be overtly negative, but they associate closely with negation. Some any forms are morphologically negative, though. In many English dialects, (3) expresses the same basic proposition as is expressed in (1), and all English speakers can perceive this meaning easily even if their dialects don't support it in production.

(3) Sam didn't eat nothing at the party last night.

In (3), we have negative concord. In a sense, nothing means anything. It's considered nonstandard in English, but it is enormously popular across these United States, and it is basically the only way to go in Italian, Spanish, Afrikaans, Russian, Greek and Hungarian (to name just a few). So, arguably, we humans are quite prepared to get confused about the distinction between anything and nothing.

In the above examples, it works pretty well to paraphrase anything as something. There can be interference from the fact that something is unhappy in the scope of negation, so that Sam didn't eat something sounds like there is some particular thing that Sam didn't eat (though he might have eaten lots of other things), but, if you summon your inner logician, then the existential paraphrases start to sound reasonable.

Not so for examples like (4).

(4) Sam will eat anything.

Here, outside the scope of negation but inside the scope of the modal will, the any form takes on a more universal sense. This doesn't mean merely that Sam will eat something, but rather that he is indiscriminate — name a food and he'll eat it. It is tempting to resort to paraphrases involving universals like everything, but these tend not to capture precisely what anything expresses in these free-choice contexts.

Sometimes, it's hard to know which kind of any form the speaker had in mind. I bet you can get your mind-brain to flip back and forth between the two senses in both of the examples in (5), which I lifted from Horn's Airport '86 revisited.

(5) a. Can anyone pass that test? (Just anyone? / Anyone at all?) (5) b. If anyone can swim the English Channel, I can.

We have good evidence that this sense of aught existed pre-19th century as well. Barbara Partee found a lovely example in 'On Chloris being ill' by Robert Burns (who I assume is too early to be among the offenders Mead has in mind with her "nineteenth-century corruption"):

Hear me, Powers Divine!
Oh, in pity, hear me!
Take aught else of mine,
But my Chloris spare me!

David Beaver turned up free-choice examples in Shakespeare, including for aught he knew and variants, [...] [which can't be easily paraphrased] with modern-day anything but which seem to have universal-like interpretations roughly like for all he knew. In addition, David and Mark Liberman found aught in the tricky environments (e.g., conditionals, comparatives) that vex semanticists working on these polarity sensitive phenomena, thereby further supporting the notion that aught was (and is) an any-type form. Since any-forms are sometimes overtly negative (as in negative concord structures) and often require the presence of negation, it seems unsurprising that they would occasionally incorporate negations as part of their lexical meanings.

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